Photo courtesy Becky M.
Well, we made it Texas. Barely and not completely just yet, but today there is light at the end of the tunnel. And that light, at least in my neck of the woods, is sunlight. I actually got a little teary seeing it this morning. It’s been that kind of week.
I35 Downtown Austin
After days of below freezing temperatures and five storms in seven days, Texas today is bathed in sunlight and bathed in hope. We are just learning that the state’s power grid was “this” close to a total black-out that could have lasted months, so having or hearing about any power right now makes all of us giddy and grateful.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the ENTIRE state of Texas just went through a major and one for the books winter weather event. You might, in fact, know more about it all then we do as we’ve suffered through multiple power outages that left us snowed in and shut off. Meteorologists seriously have no comparisons to go to on this one. (And to everyone in my beloved Oklahoma who experienced similar weather: be safe and know I’m thinking of you too.)
It all started last Thursday with freezing and crippling rain and continued for an entire week with rounds of heavy snow, sleet, more ice, and pretty much anything cold you could throw at us in the way of wintery precipitation. We were warned it was coming but we had no idea.
At the beginning, it was shocking to learn every single Texas county was under a winter storm warning; all 254 of them.
Skier in downtown Austin
Records were broken left and right. Austin alone broke the previous record for consecutive hours at or below freezing with 144 hours. That’s six days. Six long days at or below freezing. Often without heat. Without power. Without communication. And without water.
It also recorded the city’s coldest temperature in 72 years and accumulated the most snow since 1937.
The forecast day after day was chilling. Literally. The entire area was in single digits.
At one point the storm measured 221 miles wide. That’s a storm as big as New York to Boston and longer than the entire state of New Jersey.
And…the area was given its first ever wind chill warnings.
Earlier this month Puxatony Peat predicted six more weeks of winter on Groundhog Day and in true Texas fashion, the Lone Star State decided to get it over with all in one week.
This was the second snow event of the year for Austin, which in and of itself is highly unusual. But unlike the serene snow we received a few weeks back, which brought the kids out and flooded social media with beautiful winter scenes, this one was not fun and it wasn’t beautiful. It was ravaging. It was upsetting.
And for all you mountain mammas and northeasterners commenting “please, we get these all the time,” save your breath and move along. Austin was actually colder than many other places and waking up to 6 degree weather is no fun regardless of where you are. I’ve been in Buffalo and experienced 8 feet of snow fall in one fell swoop but didn’t experience massive power loss or frozen and busting pipes. It just doesn’t stay that cold for that long in these parts and our homes and energy grid are not equipped to handle it. More on that in a bit.
What we do deal with every year are torridly hot summers…April thru October…temps rarely go below 90 and 100s are common. We invite all you making fun of us to visit in July but without air conditioning and let’s throw in without water. Not so funny now, right? A dear friend of mine did joke, writing “Dear Mother Nature: have you forgotten we native Texans endure the insufferable summer season as a trade-off for moderate winter weather?” Mother Nature clearly didn’t care this past week.
It was a miserable week; and we personally didn’t have it as bad as others. Our power went on and off every day but it did come on. We had to boil water and internet service was sketchy but we have water. One minute power would be on, fireplace lit, and heat blowing and literally with no warning, everything would shut down. We’d put our puffers and beanies back on and sit in a darkened house with an inside temp that would quickly dip into the 50s. Often times we’d have no communication ability for hours on end. It was so weird and a bit creepy.
And then boom, power back on! (We are just now learning that these rolling outages literally saved the entire grid from shutting down so in hindsight, thank you outages!) We knew it was temporary so it was days on end of anxiety and walking around in layers, Uggs, and long johns under my yoga pants. Even our landline didn’t work. We’ve kept a landline because I remember during numerous tornadoes (we’re used to those!) the landline was the only phone that worked. Might be time to rethink this.
Still, we had it better than many. Multiple friends didn’t have power for days and still don’t. Many still don’t have water. It’s been horrifying to hear their worries and know there was nothing they could do and nothing we could do to help. Some went to hotels or friends and families, but streets were impassable so why risk it? Others chose to stay put and in case pipes burst. Yep, many a frozen pipe burst as Texans historically do not insulate pipes, flooding entire rooms. Texas homes are also historically poorly insulated.
So what did I learn from it all? A LOT.
I learned to fill bathtubs early on in case we lost water. Among other uses, this water could be used to flush toilets.
I learned to also fill pitchers, thermoses, pots, and any other vessels with water. Not only did this provide peace of mind, they were filled with pre-boil water stages water so they were safe to drink.
Photo courtesy Lana G.
I learned that when all else fails, you can use snow to flush those toilets. If more desperate, you can put a plastic bag in the toilet and toss after use. My husband swore he’d go outside before doing that!
I learned that my impulse purchases during last summer’s riots of Boundery lightbulbs and solar charges were lifesavers. Check them out!
I learned that as much as I love candles and how romantic and peaceful candles they can be, those lightbulbs were downright winners as I drank wine in an appropriate winter-themed glass that I didn’t even realize fit the them until a friend pointed it out.
Photo courtesy Sharon M.
I learned from my ingenious friend that you can make margaritas using snow like her version here and that if you live near a hospital you are less likely to lose power and water as the areas around them are considered critical power sectors. The same often holds true for fire stations.
I learned that my group texts and social media were lifesavers, lifelines, and entertainment.
I learned that, if you have power and/or can open your garage, you can use cars and golf carts to charge phones and other devices.
I learned that in times without power or water, use paper plates and other disposable utensils.
I learned that gas stoves are the only way to go as you can light their fuses even in the event of a power loss. We also have a gas heated water heater and fireplace.
I learned that one appliance you might want to reconsider is a touch faucet, as you can’t “drip” them and once battery power goes out, so does it.
I learned that even the smallest amount of ice is dangerous. On day one, my husband slipped and fell on our icy driveway and ultimately had to get X-rays. He’s fine but trust me; we haven’t left the house since. My Sunday paper sits on the still frozen driveway and has been for going on six days.
I learned that scammers…from insurance to plumbers to a host of others…start early.
I learned that when those beautiful icicles hanging from roofs fall, they are like spears and hit the ground. Behold but beware!
Photo courtesy Stephanie A.
The very first morning of the storm I learned how much I love and missed my morning coffee. No power? No coffee. However, I quickly learned to make several cups of coffee once power came on, put them all in a pot, and heat them when needed on the stove. Or use a French Press like my ingenious friend did.
I learned that if you’re a camper and have an all-season tent, pop it open if you lose heat and camp right inside your house.
I learned that you can cook on your outdoor gas grill if need be. Just dress warmly!
I learned you can make a quick heater out of a pot, candles, and some bricks. Granted, I didn’t try this and have no idea if it really does work but I saw it mentioned many times. Just be careful!
I learned what it’s like to live with “rolling” blackouts and my heart aches for those who do so regularly and repetitively.
I learned that dogs eventually end up liking the snow but that walking on ice and ice-covered snow makes them appear like they’ve been over-served at the nearby tavern. Can’t deny I didn’t laugh just a bit.
I learned I really missed my ever present glass of or bottled water.
WATER, WATER NO WHERE
And speaking of water, I learned that one minute we’re asked to drip our faucets to keep pipes from freezing but then suddenly asked to not drip them to conserve water.
Which brings me to: boil water advisories. Yep, if you had water pressure at all, you were instructed to boil water prior to drinking it. I learned that water quality issues are related to lack of electricity, frozen and broken water lines, and people dripping those faucets.
I learned energy constraints often have impact on the water system because the water system requires energy for treatment and pumping.
And, as a bonus, should you lose all water pressure, I learned you should turn off water heaters as they pose potential fire hazards at that point.
I learned that when building or buying a house you should demand water heaters…and pipes…be put in the slab, not in the attic. My husband suffered through busted pipes in Houston and we’ve experienced a water heater overflow that fell through the roof. Both his pipes and the water heater were in the attics.
I learned that nearly 12 million…probably more…Texans reported water service disruptions. That’s a lot of people people.
I learned there were many similarities between a year’s worth of COVID restrictions and our “SNOVID” constraints, including:
COVID taught us how to stay home but now we were being asked to stay home and learn survival skills.
Wipes and sanitizer work great when you don’t have water.
We were forced to stay home. Again.
Grocery stores were in demand but supplies and hours of operation were limited.
We rely heavily on our phones and other devices. Without them, we feel lost and out-of-touch.
Anxiety and uncertainty ruled the day.
We worried about similar things like the elderly and getting food on our tables.
On the bright side, hotels that have suffered for the past year were suddenly fully booked.
Schools that were just starting to reopen were again more shut down. Our kids continue to pay the price and will suffer down the road.
Masks were great at keeping your face warm while sitting inside a cold house.
THE GREAT RED STATE TURNED BLUE…for a week
I learned that everyone is suddenly an energy expert. Except for all those “experts” we gave power to…actual and political.
I learned Texas is the only state with its own electric grid, which manages 26 million Texans’ access to electricity. There are three grids in the Lower 48: one covers eastern states, another western states, and the third covers Texas. Only Texas. This essentially means Texas is beyond reach of pesky federal regulations but it also means it can’t import energy from other states.
I learned a new acronym: ERCOT. The Texas electric grid is managed by ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which proved neither electric nor reliable.
I learned that this grid has some serious vulnerabilities and clearly needs improvements and inspection.
I learned that figuring out why things got as bad as they did energy-wise quickly and sadly turned political. Shocker, right?
Texas Governor Greg Abbott will rightly take the brunt of the criticism, particularly from the left, which is desperate to permanently turn Texas blue. Political blue; not cold weather blue. Look for them to run with it for months on end. Abbott is taking it like a big boy however, saying the failures are ultimately on him. But fault and guilt go deeper. Any minute now I’m waiting to hear it’s all Trump’s fault and Biden has the answers. But I digress.
One side is screaming “we need more fossil fuel energy, not less” while the other side touts and practically celebrates the fact that red Texas failed to protect its own; somewhat more concerned about the state of their beloved renewable energy policies than the state of Texas and its frozen residents. As with everything, there are not two sides to every story, there are three: one side, the other side, and the truth.
In reality, the answer most likely falls somewhere in between both camps. Yes, feel good green energy has it bonuses, but we need to ensure that they not only feel good, but do good. At the same time, boy am I glad the millions of Texas drivers weren’t all charging their electric cars at one time and I’m equally glad windmill blades are often made from fossil fuels (as is all that Plexiglas we see everywhere), which may support at least a few of the precious job losses the industry is currently suffering. And then there’s….drum roll…nuclear power. And before you get all “Three Mile Island” on me, keep in mind that when done right, it is safe and effective. Ask France, where nuclear power is the largest source of electricity. Call me crazy, but don’t count it out.
The truth is yes, Texas did not handle the storm well and we as a state were simply not prepared for this fluke of a weather pattern. I’ll give it somewhat of a pass in that it was a once in a generation storm and not something any Texas taxpayer would have approved expensive precautions for in regards to insulating windmills and/or solar panels, which froze and are useless when the sun isn’t shining. If anything, this storm proved that we cannot rely on those two energy sources as our base load and no amount of research or funding could have prevented downed power lines laden heavy with ice. It’s just what happens. All capacity to produce energy was reduced. Everything froze. The entire state was trying to heat homes and trying to get power at the same time. It all hit the proverbial fan.
I also learned Texas is the nation’s number one producer of wind energy and that 25 percent of the state’s energy is wind. Sadly, wind is a “use it or lose it” commodity and you can’t store it. All of us learned that not only did windmills freeze up or shut down, so did many natural gas wells, lines, and plants as well as oil pumps and drills and many refineries were forced to temporarily shut down due to the weather. The irony that green energy failed during a snow storm in the midst of global warming in Texas is not lost on those who question total reliance on it.
I learned that it’s not uncommon for energy generating companies and plants in Texas to shut down and cut back during the normally low demand winter season to do maintenance on facilities and get ready for the peak load summer season. You can’t blame them for this.
Amazingly, I learned that five of the 16 member ERCOT board members don’t live in Texas and that one lives in Canada. Explain this to the millions of Texans who have sat for days in homes without heat and with temperatures below freezing.
I learned the tried and true “supply and demand” rule ruled as ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said in an interview. He explained that a main problem was an increased demand that the supply couldn’t meet and that when demand exceeds supply, demand needs to be cut. In short, cut off users who are demanding heat and power. This resulted in rolling power outages that varied from one hour to multiple hours; sometimes days.
IMHO, maybe it’s time we all start thinking with our heads and not just our wallets. Texas has for years opted out of paying for measures that may or may not protect us from similar storms due to expense, and somewhat rightly so. We need to increase our energy independence and utilization of our state’s vast natural resources and stop listening to outside sources that have nothing at stake but their pockets and agendas. I think we’ve come out of this learning that the less we use fossil fuels the more we ultimately need them. Green energy policies are promising but vastly under-researched and tested. Ultimately, maybe it’s high time we stop allowing politicians to make energy policies rather than those in the actual industries who know the realities.
In short, we need to insist our energy is a low risk mix of renewable and fossil fuel energy and use both efficiently. Texas perhaps should seriously consider winterizing plants and energy sources. It might be costly, but the cost of another event like this one is equally costly. In Texas that might mean solar during the hot summer months and fuel in the colder winter months. If nothing else, this storm proved Texas needs energy diversity and traditional sources if it wants to go out alone. Then again, I’m no energy expert.
As luck…or God would have it…in the midst of all this was Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Tradition calls for fasting and sacrifice during the 40 days leading up to Easter and its timing could not have been more perfect. How often do we take things like water and power for granted? All during the past week I’d think to myself, “this must be what it’s like to live in many a socialist, impoverished, or third world country” and it’s a state I pray our state or country never chooses to go by way of ill-advised policies. I’m so very grateful for my home, the water that flows from its faucets, the heat that blows, and the hardworking people who plowed the streets and got electrical lines up and running.
Stillness and quiet are all well and good, and I tried my hardest to appreciate them during those moments of complete isolation but it was hard. Hard because of the uncertainty of what the next hour would bring, whether a pipe was going to burst, heat was going to stop, and a host of other worries and anxieties. And this coming from a certified nester and introvert so you’d think all this should be right up my alley. It wasn’t though. I’m also a certified planner and worrier so the elements wreaked as much havoc with my soul and my emotions as they did with the streets and power plants. Yes I learned a lot from and during it, but I’m glad it’s over.
At the beginning of this piece I included a photo of our first snow storm this year vs. this storm. Weather is a crazy thing and weather in Texas is especially crazy. You have to stay on top of it and as my friend from California says, “everyone in Texas is a meteorologist.” She jests, but it’s kinda true. You have to be. But just be patient; the weather might be brutal, but as they say in Texas, just give it a minute.
I’ll close with something a friend saw and shared. It pretty much sums up the week and sums up Texas.